My routine in paying bills while observing the sheltering-in-place rules has not changed. I spend the first hour of the day in my pajamas at my computer. Since my checkbook is with my brokerage firm, I can glance at how well my retirement nest egg is holding while I see what checks and drafts have hit the account. I try not to think much past the numbers on the screen. Most of our financial system is based on faith. Unlike religion, I can’t dismiss it as comforting fantasy, a refuge for those who lack the intellectual fortitude to accept the nagging ambiguities and inconsistencies of daily life. I cannot say, for example, that free-enterprise capitalism works in mysterious ways when misfortune befalls as one might of the divine. When I am broke, it isn’t because the free enterprise system has withdrawn favor from me. Nor does it shine upon me when I prosper. But it works. That’s all. We don’t know why it works except it does. Everyone using it has faith in it.
Forty years ago I was broke. Worse than that. I was in deeply in debt.. If you’ve ever been broke, you know. You dread the next unexpected bill. Cringe handing your credit card to the cashier hoping you’re not over your limit. Poverty has great lessons to teach, but it doesn’t take long to learn them. You get by – somehow.
Retirement Reserves Took a Hit . . .
Gratefully, my fortunes took a turn. I retired at the end of 2007, just weeks before my 69th birthday. My retirement reserves took a big hit right of the bat in 2008, but I was beyond the choking grasp of poverty. My wife and I used the years we both worked to get to the high ground. We lived within our budget. We contributed the maximum to our 401(k) plans and saved our money. We stayed out of debt except for our mortgage and interest-free payments plans on our autos. We enjoyed life and slept well.
Taking a hit from the Coronavirus/Trump crisis so far has not bothered me. My experience decades ago helped set up a firewall for my peace-of-mind. I know being poor is not a statement about how successful I have been as a husband, father, and a man. I know we will get through. I won’t bother figuring out how that will happen. It will happen or it won’t. Whatever awaits is what awaits. Take the precautions, sure. Eat well, Keep your weight down. Exercise. Mind your spending. If I we end up broke again, I am certain that we will not blame each other, curse our fate, or rue any extravagance as the cause. Growing anxious today over what could happen only makes life that much more difficult to endure. And faith has a role to play, but not in the same sense my more religiously inclined readers may think.
The greatest act of faith exercised by most today is done unconsciously. Almost everyone uses the country’s monetary system in keeping their lives together. We believe in what we cannot see. We believe in numbers on a computer screen or ATM monitor. We rarely see money in cash and coin. Order something on Amazon, and numbers are taken away from the totals on your account and added to the totals on Amazon’s account. Whatever you ordered arrives because Amazon sent some numbers to the U. S. Postal Service. We protect our numbers with passwords and other measures to assure that they are not scooped up and carried off by a thief. And what would the thief do with the ill-gotten numbers? He’d put them in a place where he can dispatch them to others as numbers.
Cash in My Jeans – Cool . . .
This is not a new phenomenon. Among other memorabilia, I have the stub from the first check I received from my first job, April, 1954. I worked twenty-hours at Kip Larson’s Blue Moon Drive-Inn in Yankton, South Dakota. I was a freshman in high school at the time, but I managed to log in 20 hours a week for which I got paid the grand sum of $10.00 minus withholding for social security. I cashed the check and stuffed my earnings into my jeans. Somehow seeing the currency made everything real. It felt good. You do stuff with cash. Go places. Movies were 9 cents. Gas was 29 cents a gallon. Yeah, man, 9 bucks and change in your pocket was livin’. Cool, daddy-o! If I’d had my way, it’d go on like that forever.
For years, I wrote out my checks in payment for the goods and services. I sent the payments in the mail. Sometimes, to save the cost of stamp, I would use my lunch hour in downtown Minneapolis to deliver check in person and pick up receipts. There, again, was the satisfying sense that something of value changed hands. The transaction was tangible. Delayed at least for a few more years was the realization we were on the brink of a society that required us to have unflinching faith in numbers. Numbers for cash. Numbers for coin. Numbers as receipts. Numbers as amounts due. Numbers as wages. All of us responded, working out of the same belief system. It works because it works.
Sometimes, I don’t even need to send my numbers. I have given the billing party the right to take them when they are due. I am not part of the transaction at all. The U. S. Treasury is said to print money. Where does it go? At the most, I see only $200 of it at a time and then only because that’s a default value on the screen of the ATM I use. This is a faith that does not demand earnest repentance. All you need is a few bucks – oh, oh – a few numbers somewhere and get started We have turned things around somehow. As a boy, I thought money determined the value of anything. Our system now, based on fatih, goods and services determine the value of our money. Our faith in our system sustains it. Perhaps that what mother meant when she would say, “He’s made a god out of money.”